Thursday, 13 January 2011

'The Thorn in the Heart' review:

If there is one word that sums up the feature film work of Michel Gondry it is probably nostalgia. His next film is 'The Green Hornet', a modern take on a character which made his debut on the radio in the 1930s and who was made most famous by his 1960s TV incarnation (which co-starred Bruce Lee). His last film 'Be Kind Rewind' was equally backward looking, taking its inspiration from VHS cassettes and cinema of the 1980s - with Gondry recreating lo-fi versions of such films as 'Ghostbusters' and 'Driving Miss Daisy'. The Frenchman also directed 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' which looked at the importance of memories and 'The Science of Sleep' which looked at the significance of dreams (through the eyes of a childish nostalgic played by Gael Garcia Bernal), whilst his first film 'Human Nature' was in some respects the ultimate look back as it followed Rhys Ifans as a primitive man raised by apes.

It is entirely fitting then that Gondry has chosen to shoot a documentary about his elderly aunt Suzette, a former school teacher. The film looks back at her life, and in the process that of Gondry's own parents and childhood, by way of a great deal of Super 8 film footage (the ultimate resource of the nostalgic?) as well as some very intimate interviews. The interviews are warm and Gondry comes across as thoughtful and kind-natured whilst managing to coax some quite poignant, heartfelt reminiscences - which mostly relate to the turbulent relationship between Suzette and her son Jean-Yves. It is from these interactions that the film's title is taken as Suzette describes her son as the thorn in her heart. Yet as you might expect from a Michel Gondry film, there is also a great deal of good humour and a sense of fun over a lot of the documentary.

In his typically inventive and inspired lo-fi style, Gondry uses animation to bring some of his aunt's recollections to life. In one playful scene, which had me in stitches, Gondry re-enacts a moment that his cameras have missed staging an incident in which Jean-Yves became "trapped" in a bathroom after a small clothes horse fell against the door. Opening the door ajar, Gondry has a member of his crew replicate how Jean-Yves poked his head through the gap and whined for his elderly mother to move the small laundry-drying apparatus blocking his path. In another innovative and charming sequence, Gondry makes a class of school children run around wearing green screen cloaks which he uses to make them appear invisible. As they charge around the playground with only their heads and feet visible, there is a great feeling of experimentation and spontaneity as the director looks to excite the children about the possibilities of his medium.

But the best "stunt" of his in this low-key film happens when Suzette takes him to the site of a demolished school where only an old projection box remains standing. Gondry and his crew decide to turn the space into a cinema once again and fashion a screen out of a timber frame and some bed sheets before taking an old projector into the old projection box and screening an old film for Suzette and some of her former students, now themselves middle-aged. It is a joyful and moving moment in a film full of such moments.

The film's crowning achievement is that whilst Gondry is always on friendly terms with his subjects (whom he clearly loves dearly) he does manage to get a lot of truth out of the exercise. His aunt is depicted with great admiration and respect, yet Gondry also manages to convey how she has perhaps neglected her son - possibly on account of his homosexuality - in favour of attending to the generations of school children who came through her classroom, all of whom seem to look on her more fondly than Jean-Yves. The relationship between Jean-Yves and his deceased father is similarly troubling. Yet this is counterbalanced by more jovial scenes, such as the opening in which Suzette tells stories about her husband over a big family dinner, during which she is incapacitated by laughter.

The family as depicted by Gondry is complex: equal parts beautiful and damaged. This balance is something which Gondry seems to portray so effortlessly without it ever feeling like he is manipulating his audience or his subjects. The film may even seem to suffer from the fact that it is so relaxed and slight - it could almost look like Gondry hasn't done anything at all. Though I think 'The Thorn in the Heart' is a really wonderful and personal piece of filmmaking from a director consistently so adept at looking backwards without compromising either his judgement or his artistry.

'The Thorn in the Heart' is rated 'PG' by the BBFC.

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